“The apes have taken over — while we were busy watching television and filling our freezers, they’ve come out of the jungle and moved in!”
That line is definitely not the stereotypical 1950’s movie denouement particularly when it is uttered by the stolidly full-upright Frank Lovejoy about Communism in Shack Out on 101 (1955) that screened last night at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.
As Sterling Hayden unsuccessfully tried to quantify for Timothy Carey what type of crime shooting a racehorse is in The Killing (1956); “…as a matter of fact, I don’t know what it is…”, I have the same dilemma attempting to describe just what type of movie Shack Out on 101 (1955) actually is: film noir, melodrama, high camp, comedy, none of the above, all of the above??? By whatever genre, the picture is a unique, well acted, uproarious hoot.
Shack out on 101 is the most entertaining of the so-called Red Scare films of the 1950’s. With the oppressive atmosphere of the HUAC and the Blacklist blanketing Hollywood during this period, studios started injecting a populist, often colorful view of the Red Menace into films.
Over at RKO, Howard Hughes weighed in with The Woman on Pier 13 that cast Thomas Gomez and William Talman as domestic Communists who were traditional waterfront gangsters in San Francisco. Hughes also appropriated Stanley Rubin’s film about Hitler escaping the war and turned it into a ridiculous anti-Red screed titled The Whip Hand that featured Commie scientists and boogeymen led by Raymond Burr performing nerve gas experiments in a lakeside resort. There was I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. over at Warners (nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary!), Walk a Crooked Mile with Dennis O’Keefe, John Wayne as Big Jim Mclain breaking up a Communist spy ring in Hawaii. Red Snow with Guy Madison foiling Soviet infiltration into Alaska and so forth.
Shack out on 101 came at the end of the McCarthy era and does not have the sharp edge of earlier films; it is just a wild ride under the plot heading of “things are never what they seem”. Leading the way are a quartet of stars including the underrated Frank Lovejoy, the irascible Keenan Wynn and Lee Marvin in a truly wonderful performance as a nefarious short order cook named “Slob” working at a seaside greasy spoon who is secretly a Communist agent. The absurdity of the story is well complemented by the over-the-top, misorgyistic dialogue and some wonderful ensemble acting by Marvin, Wynn, Frank Lovejoy and the object of everyone’s angst and desire, the “Tomato”, played by Terry Moore who attended the screening.
Joining me on stage afterwards, Moore revealed that the entire shooting of Shack Out took 10 days and a pair of the most uproarious scenes: Wynn and Marvin lifting weights and trading nonsensical banter about each other’s physiques and Wynn with the always dependable Whit Bissell donning snorkel masks and flippers and crawling around the cafe as if underwater to harpoon a stuffed swordfish hung on a wall were totally improvisational.
Terry Moore stated that, “I had more fun on this picture than I did on any other one I ever made.”
In response to my query, Moore advised that director Ed Dein did little to no direction of the actors: “He threw us the script and let us go to it. You don’t have time to do much of anything in ten days!” Moore waxed affectionately about Lee Marvin and Keenan Wynn whom she went out hunting rabbits with and sipped a few beers. Everyone got to be great friends.
Lee Marvin, “…would have been a SEAL or a Commando today…he was like nobody else, a true original”, averred Moore, who talked to the actor in the hospital three days before he died. My take: Marvin’s bravura performance in Shack Out heralded his emergence from the ranks of an interesting heavy and gave him a chance to demonstrate what a versatile actor he could be.
Terry Moore touched on a wide variety of subjects: Mighty Joe Young, Ben Johnson, Come Back Little Sheba, Along the Five Mile Reef, King of the Khyber Rifles, Tyrone Power (I’ve noticed that every female star who worked with Power gets a glazed look on their face when they speak of him!) and of course, Howard Hughes.
Terry thought that the The Aviator didn’t quite capture Howard, particularly during his middle and later years, so she is working on a television miniseries about the reclusive billionaire. She also hinted at a movie project that “I am not supposed to talk about.” Terry Moore displayed more energy than people half her age. I was on stage with her in Palm Springs for Two of a Kind four years ago and she appeared even more radiant this time around. For more about Terry Moore, visit her website.
At this screening, I met actress Gita Hall who is the former wife of actor Barry Sullivan. She was unaware that the second feature at the Aero, Tension (1950), starred Sullivan. I think I talked her into staying to see it.